Eye of the storm: Macon’s Lewis Penland speaks out

Lewis Penland doesn't attempt to deny he's a stubborn man, or soften the suggestion that he digs in the heels of his work boots ever deeper the more people try to push him around.

"The only people I care about are the ones I care about. And if I don't care for them, to hell with them," Penland said in a recent interview.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why Penland, chairman of the Macon County Planning Board, hasn't given one inch to anti-planning forces in the county who've painted him as a mad man run amok. A planning zealot, to hear them tell it, a rude and overbearing tyrant on a mission to corral and impede the God-given property rights of residents living in Macon County by saddling them with unnecessary and liberty-defiling rules.

That, however, is a difficult measuring tape to successfully use for sizing up Penland, given that this Macon County native is an actual, in-the-flesh land developer himself. And not a putt-putt sized mini developer, for that matter. Penland, who previously developed golf courses across the Southeast, now works for the commercial real estate arm of the Texas-based Keller Williams Realty as a golf course sales analyst. Penland's work these days is international in scope.

Penland is an unapologetic, flat-out believer in planning regulations. But Penland's reasons for supporting development guidelines might come as something of a surprise to his detractors: Yes, Penland wants to protect individual property owners, but additionally he fervently believes that the only way Macon County will ever attract the multimillion dollar housing developments is by offering protections to developers. And those, he said, come in the form of planning regulations.

"It all boils down to jobs," Penland said. "If regulations are so bad, why is there commerce going on in the other counties? Look east — Jackson, Haywood and Buncombe are starting to show signs of growth. And Jackson probably has the most stringent guidelines of anyone. Look west — they are as bad or worse than we are, and they also don't have regulations. Look at the numbers: Numbers don't have a dog in this fight. And I want jobs to come back to Franklin."

'Why bother?'

While planning detractors hoped to see him ousted, Penland last month was reappointed to his seat on the planning board by a 4-1 vote of the Macon County commissioners . Only Commissioner Ron Haven voted 'no' to Penland's reappointment.

Haven had pushed for term limits on the planning board, a move some saw as a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of the long-serving Penland — a theory undergirded by an email Haven sent lambasting Penland.

While there are now term limits, they're not nearly as strict in nature as what Haven wanted. Under the newly approved term limit guidelines, given the thumbs up by the other four county commissioners, Penland can serve a three-year term, wait one year, and serve again. The limits were not retroactively applied so the limit to Penland's tenure starts now.

The planning board, and in particular Penland, emerged in the past year as a lightning rod for anti-planning factions in Macon County. An attempt by the planning board to craft a steep-slope ordinance crashed and burned after some two years work. It was replaced, under Penland's guidance and by his suggestion, with so-called "construction guidelines" that have yet, after some four months, received neither commissioners' approval nor disapproval. The guidelines, routine in nature by most counties' measures, mainly deal with how tall and steep cut and fill slopes can be and with basic road-compaction standards.

The email written by Haven about Penland led to high political drama, even by Macon County standards, and this is a community well rehearsed in dramatic showdowns over planning issues. In a bushwhack job of the English language and, more arguably, Penland's character, Haven wrote to his fellow commissioners a couple months ago: "So with us being at the crossroads at putting Lewis Penland back on board for another upsetting three years to keep doing the same thing the people are tired of, it seems the timing is just right with nothing in the way. It is time right now to make changes and you commissioners know it. Penland with his rude attitude, close minded, self agenda ideas has no place on the planning board."

Early in February, in a public forum with up to 200 people present, Haven did not retract the content of his email but did openly assert that he believes Penland is "a good man."

And Penland, for his part, speaks with apparent real respect for Haven. The hotel owner turned elected political leader is someone who doesn't flinch under fire, Penland said.

"I admire Ron," Penland said. "He will stand there and he will stay the course. That's admirable."

Niceties aside, Penland still hasn't particularly enjoyed being a metaphorical marshmallow on a stick roasting over the planning-board campfire. Serving on the planning board, after all, is a volunteer job done as a form of civic duty.

"Some days, you wake up and wonder: 'Why did I even bother?'" he said, and then explained why he does: "I love the county and I do worry about the future of kids here."

Penland is married and has children. He grew up in east Franklin; Penland lives now west of town in the Cartoogechaye community.

The two sides

Sue Waldroop served as chairman of the Macon County Planning Board for six years. Though her job was tough enough, filling that role wasn't anything like what Penland has experienced.

"He's had a lot of sticks poked at him," Waldroop said.

Like Penland, this former planning board chairman is a native-born "Maconian," as the local newspaper likes to dub in print those who live in this county. Any dirt under Waldroop's nails, though, came from farming, not development.

Waldroop doesn't like what she's seeing and hearing these days in Macon County when it comes to passing what she, at least, considers reasonable, prudent safeguards on development.

"We're polarized by a group of naysayers," Waldroop said. "They've made a religion out of screaming about property rights. ... They have hindered, in particular, steep slope regulations that are so desperately needed."

If there's a Daddy Rabbit in the anti-planning faction in Macon County, that would be Don Swanson, a no apologies-sort of fellow when it comes to standing up and backing his political beliefs. Swanson calls it like he sees it, and the way he sees the situation, the planning board has long been an outright "source of agitation and embarrassment" to Macon County.

Swanson said there are too many members on the board (there are 12), and that most of those serving "are there for political reasons rather than any expertise they might offer."

"They have overreached in their efforts to regulate Macon County to the extent that our largest industry, construction, may never recover from the current economic slowdown," he said. "Land use planning at the expense of maintaining employment opportunities seems to be the aim of the board."

Swanson pointed to a recent code of conduct passed by commissioners to govern the planning board as reflecting a general "lack of civility that has been pervasive in their activities."

Those activities having taken place primarily under Penland's leadership as chairman of the planning board. One could argue that any lack of civility has been the fault, if fault it is, of both factions, and that Penland has simply been trying to ride herd, as it's said, on the equivalent of a bunch of cats.

Some of it might be unavoidable given the polarized positions. Ardent opponents of planning at the same table as advocates, expected to find common ground on a highly passionate issue, is a recipe for strife.

Decision time

Penland likes the makeup of the current board, pointing to the extremes of two current long-serving members as demonstrative of its overall balance: Susan Ervin, representing the pro-planning residents of Macon County, and Lamar Sprinkle, representing the other end of that spectrum.

"You don't need 'yes' people, and you wouldn't want all pro-planning or all the other way, either," he said.

But Penland does have concerns about future members that commissioners might opt to appoint to the planning board.

"I'm worried. You need planners who want to do planning," Penland said.

As to what exactly the planning board can accomplish at this point is unclear. They have no real direction as of yet.

"All of that's going to be up to our commissioners and to the people of this county," Penland said. "And if we really don't want planning, we need to just be done with it."

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